How to Respond Faithfully to the Mental Health Crisis
I shut my laptop abruptly late one afternoon. I realized I was holding my breath. My neck and scalp were tingling and my shoulders were tight. I put my hand over my chest and felt my heart racing. It was just an unpleasant email, I thought. Why am I feeling like this? I stood up from the kitchen table, only to feel dizzy. I sat down again, just to breathe.
It was early 2022. For months I had been experiencing increased anxiety, often making work and family responsibilities hard to manage. Tensions in my extended family and at work, mixed with intense cultural polarization, caused me to honestly ask myself two questions: Is there something wrong with me? And am I the only one feeling like this?
The Real Pandemic
After some digging, I came to learn that anxiety and challenges around mental health may be one of the most universal human experiences of the past several years. The CDC reported in July 2022 that 28.8% of Americans report symptoms of anxiety disorder; for 18-29 year olds, it’s a staggering 42.9%. In December 2021, the Surgeon General warned of a growing youth mental health crisis. And today, nearly one-quarter of Americans over age 18 are medicated for anxiety, depression or ADHD. No wonder President Biden called for national response to the growing mental health crisis in his 2022 State of the Union Address.
The pandemic didn’t create a global mental health crisis, but it did make it worse. “I believe we saw the exacerbation of mental health issues during the pandemic,” says Marvin Williams, 57, the lead pastor of Trinity Church in Lansing, Michigan. Williams, a Black pastor in a predominately White church (“which carries its own anxieties,” he says), believes the convergence of the pandemic, political division, and growing issues around race created a perfect storm. “Those three things coming together at the same time revealed even more of what was under the hood,” says Williams. Globally, the World Health Organization found the pandemic sparked a 25% increase in anxiety and depression.
Chronic anxiety is increasingly commonplace and even severe mental health issues have been on the rise for years. In the last two decades, suicide rates have risen 30%, and in 2020, 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide. Princeton researchers Angus Deaton and Anne Case found that “deaths of despair” – death by drug overdose, suicide, and alcoholism – have risen sharply, particularly for working class communities. For the first time in the modern era, even before the pandemic, life expectancy rates started to decline.
So what’s causing the growing mental health crisis? Many point to a loneliness epidemic. NPR reports 60% of Americans are lonely, which the pandemic perpetuated when workplaces and schools were shut down, impacting a generation of young people. The inability to gather during COVID led to fewer in-person relationships, sapping people’s resilience to stress.
Many also point to heightened social tensions in the past two years. “In our culture we’ve seen increasing political and social polarization, increasing awareness of sexual assault and racial violence and inequity, and we’ve had two very polarizing election cycles,” says Warren Kinghorn, a psychiatrist and co-director of the Theology, Medicine and Culture program at Duke University. “Our experience has been that mental health clinicians are in high demand, especially since the pandemic.” Kinghorn notes colleges and universities are reporting a significant increase in demand for student mental health services.
Others point to another plague for young people: the rise of social media and smartphones. Not only has social media led to growing political division due to an inability to effectively communicate, but studies have also found that overuse of smartphones actually warps teenage brains, causing anxiety, depression, impulse control problems, and sleep disorders. Dr. Jean Twenge, author of the best-selling book iGen, has found that this generation of teens, when compared to teens in the 1970s, are less likely to go out with peers, more likely to say they feel left out or lonely, and more likely to report they don’t enjoy life. These rates went up markedly since 2012 – the first year smartphones hit the market.
It may still be that something is wrong with me. But if the statistics are right, I’m certainly not alone.
Pioneers in Compassion
The church has been responding to mental health issues since its inception. The ancient Romans thought mental illness was caused by divine punishment, evil spirits, or an imbalance of the humors. Treatments ranged from philosophizing to bloodletting. Yet, noting Jesus’ compassion for the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34, Luke 8:26-39), early church fathers innovated in devising new methods of care for the poor and mentally ill.
In 370, St. Basil opened a ptochotropeion, a hospital intended to serve the poor, indigent, and ill. In contrast to Greek hospitals of the time, who would only serve those who could pay, Basil offered care to all, founding what historians believe to be the first public hospital.
The Medieval Church continued to innovate ways to serve the mentally ill. The 7th-Century Irish Saint Dymphna inspired the town of Geel, located in modern Belgium, to pioneer de-institutionalized care for the mentally ill, where patients would interact with townspeople during daytime and sleep at the hospital at night.
A century later, Father Joan Gilabert Jofré (1350-1417) was on his way to the Cathedral in Valencia for the first Sunday in Lent. When he saw two men brutally attacking a “madman,” he rescued the victim, took him back to his convent, and preached a sermon about establishing an institution to care for the mentally ill. Afterwards, eleven patrons gathered to found arguably the first psychiatric care institution in Europe.
Indeed, anxiety and depression have been present throughout church history, including the 20th century. We’ve always had reasons to worry, whether they be the anthrax scare, 9/11, school shootings or the cultural turmoil of previous generations, like the Vietnam War or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mental Health Awareness Month wasn’t founded in 2020; it has been observed in the US every May since 1949. “Cast your anxiety on him because he cares for you” is a comfort and mandate for all generations (1 Peter 5:7).
And yet, something does seem different today.
Many in the modern world experience unprecedented levels of wealth and physical comfort, but report being deeply unhappy – actually at the highest rate in the last 70 years, reports Gallup. The speed of technology and rapid cultural fragmentation are undoubtedly influencing us, especially young people. And the lines between mental illness and everyday experience seem to be blurring for millions.
Can the church offer unique insight today for those battling anxiety, depression, and mental illness?
This article is the first section of a full essay to be published at The Reformed Journal in November 2022. Next week I’ll publish the second of the three part series.